Today We Learn About: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò”

“Torture should never be conceived simply as an arbitrary game of cruelty.”

–        Nicolau Eimeric

On September 11th, 2001, people across the globe watched as the Twin Towers fell. News reporters zoomed in on couples jumping while holding hands until they collided with the ground. For days every channel, children’s cartoon networks included, aired repeated footage of death and despair as millions watched. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salò, on the other hand, has been banned at some point in time in multiple countries and not a single actor or actress is actually hurt in the making of the film. Perhaps people are upset by the ways in which Salò portrays the bare truth of what modern society does more and more every day while watching the news and the plethora of crimes shows available to choose from. Violence is a part of everyday life at this point, and higher levels of violence such as torture and execution are privileges that only those in positions of political power have the right to practice. This leads, however, to the issue of considering torturing one’s “enemy” as a right. Salò aims to portray the violence of political dominance without the distraction of “context” validating the destructive decisions of politicians.

Torture encompasses more than the usually-perceived thoughts of military interrogations and the like. In his paper “Totalitarian Lust: From Salò to Abu Ghraib,” Eduardo Subirats argues that torture is only one of many ways in which human beings demonstrate their dominance. He lists other contemporary manifestations, including “the technical-scientific destruction of ecosystems, the economic strategies of global genocide, and programs for nuclear and biological exterminations (Subirats, 174).” Despite torture and violence having such negative connotations, many nations allow themselves to become known for their ability to kill and their laws regarding torture. Knowledge of what goes on in places like Abu Ghraib purposefully creates an image to be feared; an image that citizens becomes proud of. The abilities to wound, kill and rape have become even a status symbol through their use as weapons of war. Subirats believes there is a balance there, however. He writes that “torture must hide its primitive, bloody, and sacrificial brutality from society while, at the same time, making sure to exhibit itself as a public demonstration of power that is as absolute as it is arbitrary (Subirats, 177).” This creates a safe persona for world governments that would seem to suggest that the possibility of violence from military superpowers is an ever-loaming threat that could be unleashed from any reason at any time.

Pasolini uses the film to hide scathing political commentary within the scenes of violent pornography and nauseating imagery. These scenes offer differing degrees of quickly-progressing violence that parallel the military tactics of hunger, epidemics and public execution that have been used for centuries (Subirats, 180). Without the context of war and patriotism, the audience is appalled by the actions of the politicians. These actions, however, are placed with purpose in what Subirats calls the “performative dimension. (179)” They are perpetrated to be seen. They are public demonstrations of power. The acts committed against the victims in the film were not first committed by those actors and actresses, however. The torture used, such as cutting out the tongue or scalping, have been employed for centuries and that information is available in history text books and Internet search engines. It is ignored, however, in favor of the higher cause it is supporting. Salò strips away that context by replacing the soldiers and interrogators with purposeless sadists. When the reality of torture is shown in such an unfiltered format, most of the film’s audience responds with culturally-appropriate shock and disgust. The effect of these cruel exploits, however, did not change when the purpose or the perpetrators changed. The blood is still shed, the survivors are still traumatized, and the murdered are still dead. No amount of context can change those basic truths.

At first it could seem as if the film, which is has been colloquially classified as “torture porn,” only serves to reinforce the fetishistic obsession with violence that it parodies. In the contrary, it leads audiences to question how the politicians and soldiers can not only be comfortable with their actions, but attain what Pasolini portrays as strangely intimate relationship between the torturer and the victim. The film marries both the fictionalization and neutralization of the reality of violence and the hyper-realistic and pornographic exaltation of it (Subirats, 179), exposing them to both the victims’ perspectives and what Subirats calls the “privileged perspective” (181) or the point of view of the torturers. In viewing both perspectives over time, the reality that humans have always dominated each other through violence and humiliation loses its cultural filter. As the politicians sit and watch the ending tortures and murders through binoculars, the audience comes to realize its role as the voyeuristic spectator to both real and fictional violence (Subirats, 181). Throughout the gruesome finale the screams of the victims are silent while Carmina Burana plays in the background and the audience even further removed from the violence by viewing it all through the scopes of the binoculars. The audience is shown a stark duality that constantly exists in the subconscious of modern society, lulled by a beautiful cantata so that the violent scenes can be better handled by the viewer. After witnessing the death of sixteen victims, two soldiers dance to the sing and one asks the other about his girlfriend. These young men, desensitized to the most extreme forms of torture and murder, are, to others, normal members of society. The film ends with this conversation and this realization that this behavior is possible within anyone.

Modern society sends out a plethora of mixed messages regarding the appropriateness of violence. Banning and censoring Salò comes across as a step toward morality and a stance against violence, but television programs which show six slow-motion replays of a suicide bomber attacking a school in Iran does not show any less abuse unto humanity. Censoring fictional portrayals of violence and degradation that actually occur across the globe does not in any way stop them, but it prevents the true capability of human cruelty from making society too uncomfortable. So long as there has been a “bad guy” and a higher cause, people have been able to ignore, accept and even champion the use of violence as a means to an end. Salò challenges its audience to continue their place as voyeurs of violence in their society when those aspects are stripped and they are left with unadulterated human-on-human dominance, humiliation, and violence.


Subirats, Eduardo. “Totalitarian Lust: From Salò to Abu Ghraib.” South Central Review 24.1

(2007): 174-182.


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